Another day, another diversity in the media debate, only this was a debate with a difference. A proposal was put on the table that met with interest from an audience weary of talking, weary of listening and weary of believing that change really is about to happen.
Monday’s diversity powwow, organised and chaired by culture minister Ed Vaizey, featured key figures from across the creative industries – television bosses including ITV’s Peter Fincham and Sky’s Stuart Murphy, to directors of small theatre and music companies, youth groups, writers’ schemes and young entrepreneurs such as Jamal Edwards.
Most significantly, it featured a surprise appearance from culture secretary Sajid Javid who stressed his personal as well as professional interest in addressing the diversity deficit. “Believe me, when I say I understand the issue and how serious it is, I speak from personal experience … and it makes me even more determined to see what can be done,” he said. That includes, he added in response to a question on “accountability” from Lenny Henry, “looking at exactly what measures we may need to take if these plans don’t start showing results very quickly”.
“These plans” included announcements on new initiatives for television and the arts, but it was film that stole the show with BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts unveiling a new “three ticks assessment” designed to boost diversity of ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic background in the industry.
From July 2015, anyone applying for BFI lottery funding must meet targets and gain ticks in two out of three areas of their production: on-screen diversity, off-screen diversity and employment opportunities.
Crucially, and what excited audience members the most, is that the targets are tied to money: you can only tap into the BFI’s £27m pot if you deliver a diverse lead character; two heads of department from diverse backgrounds including key creatives such as director and cinematographer; and/or paid internships and jobs going to “new entrants from diverse backgrounds” as well as a commitment to help them progress.
Contrast this with the TV industry, where the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) pledge – launched in 2009 by its members who include the chief executives of ITV, BBC, Channel 4 and Sky – asks producers to try to meet a set of diversity targets. Miss them, as the majority have, and there isn’t a single penalty, financial or otherwise. The pledge has been widely criticised for “lacking teeth” and seen as contributing to a steep decline of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation in TV, according to Creative Skillset. Almost 2,000 BAME people have left the UK TV industry since 2009, reducing representation from 6.7% in 2009 to 5.4% of the total workforce. The figures prompted widespread shock across the industry but propelled Lenny Henry into action with his “Henry plan” to ringfence money for diverse programming.
Ironically, the BFI guidelines are based on the CDN pledge, but go much further by hitting producers where it hurts the most – their pockets. Rumour has it that BFI chair Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general who coined the phrase “hideously white” to describe the corporation, sought something “radical”, to reverse the backwards trend and ensure films benefiting from public money reflect the nation.
Meanwhile, the CDN announced its own new initiative, a huge and expensive monitoring project, Silvermouse, which, for the first time, will create an industry benchmark and allow broadcasters’ diversity performance on- and off-screen to be ranked against each other. Having run a campaign to boost the numbers of female experts in news and current affairs, I know that monitoring works, especially when combined with other measures. There is nothing like the Daily Mail reporting BBC News at Ten’s 9:1 male/female ration to focus attention, but working with the BBC Academy to launch Expert Women training days made all the difference. Last week, the BBC Trust credited the initiative for helping to boost the number of female scientists on screen.
Monitoring diversity more broadly is a welcome move but without penalties for poor performance, will it be enough? It’s hard to defend an industry that has pledged, promised and self-regulated for the past five years when the only direction of travel is backwards.